Environmental Thought in the Philippines

Philippine Worldview of Ecosystem: Hornedo’s Interpretation of a Bago Myth

Filipino myths and folktales that are transferred by oral tradition from generation to generation are the anthropological sources of understanding indigenous spirituality which are most often tied up with the natural world and they influence the way people understand the moral self. Before the Spanish arrived in 1565 and brought Christianity to the Philippine islands, Filipinos believed in gods and deities which inhabited the natural world.

Florentino Hornedo, Filipino philosopher and anthropologist, when studying indigenous Ilocano culture, recounts a conversation he had with Sati Baltazar, his guide and informant. Baltazar told him that the gods have migrated from the eastern mountains to Mt. Tenglawan, a lush mountain on the western slope of the Cordillera. Hornedo asked Baltazar the reason why:

“Because their forest cover is gone.”

“And how is it known that the gods have left?”

“The springs have dried up; and wildlife which people use to hunt are now extinct. Even farm crops are failing.”

‘Why would the gods migrate to Tenglawan?”

 “Because the place is not disturbed; it is still thickly forested.”

Hornedo then recounts a Bago myth told by a native named Lakay Arsenio Ligod of Barangay Amilongan, Alilem, Ilocos Sur (recorded December 28, 1989).  The Bagos are a cultural community  along the strip of the Bakun River, near the Bontoc-Benguet border. They speak a mixed dialect of Iloko-Kankanaey. The following is the summary of the story:

Once upon a time, there was a man named Aliko of Amilongan who had a dog and lived as a hunter. He caught all the wild pigs and deer including ants from the forest. It was known that whenever his dog barked, this would be followed by cries of the pigs. Then a mysterious Lady appeared to him and warned that his killing had gone overboard, that Aliko had killed all the pets they had including a new one (referring to a boar).  Aliko was repentant for a while but after some time returned to hunting.  He killed another boar with long tusks, cooked him, and while his head was boiling in the pot, the animal cried out. After some days, Aliko died.

Hornedo says that the above two stories could be understood in the following mode: : one, it presents the world of the sacred and the secular; two, the sacred lives in the secular (nature); three, the sacred thwarts the secular when damaged; four, the sacred demands respect for the secular; five, when the ecosystem is violated, the gods depart from it; six, the gods take revenge and destroy the offender.

Hornedo explains that the Ilocano indigenous notion of god (who is called Apo Kabunian) has the primary trait of generosity in the provision of life-giving resources. This god who resides in nature expects the moral attitude that humans respect all flora and fauna that had been bountifully bestowed. Respect is implied in the notion of animals being “pets of the gods,” thus, having valued individualities.  The very screaming of the pig’s head being boiled is the expression of the god’s anger. What is interesting in the story is that the gods warn human offenders before they are punished and the admonition is given by a ‘Lady’. This alludes to Philippine environmentalism which is largely an advocacy of women. It follows that since the prime godly quality is generosity, the opposite of which is greed, translated as a taking of gifts beyond what one needs, becomes the ecological moral guideline. The punishment of the gods for exploitation of nature is death of peoples and the decay of nature. Thus, the statement of Mahatma Gandhi, “The world has enough for everyone’s needs but never enough for everyone’s greed”   became the dictum of many Philippine environmentalist groups in their various advocacies, most especially  now that it has suffered an immense depletion of forests, mining of mountains, China’s territorial overfishing, increasing droughts, floods, and volcanic eruptions spurred by climate change.

Recommended readings

  • Hornedo, F. (1995). Bago myth and the ecosystem. Philippine Studies, 43 (2): 231-244.

By Mira Reyes (Ph.D)

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